Written by Carol Baass Sowa for Today’s Catholic
Graziano Marcheschi, a presenter at Our Lady of the Lake University’s fourth annual Encuentro High School Theology Institute, June 9-14, was well-equipped to offer students a hands-on experience in memorably bringing Scripture to life.
With a doctorate in ministry from Loyola University, a master’s in theatre, and experience ranging from 20 years as director of lay ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago to playing Jesus in Arkansas’ The Great Passion Play and co-founding the Anawim Players, a liturgical performing arts company, Marcheschi alternated between holding the youthful San Antonio audience in rapt attention and giving them an opportunity to take center stage themselves.
“My goal,” he said beforehand, “is to help loosen them up, become more comfortable, and then to be able to creatively experience the word of God.” Thirty high school students were selected for the Lilly Endowment-sponsored institute from Providence, Holy Cross and Central Catholic high schools and the parishes of St. Jude, St. Paul, Christ the King, St. Martin de Porres and San Juan de los Lagos, the mission being to explore vocation, service, faith traditions and church leadership. Twenty OLLU students underwent several days of training to serve as their mentors. “We believe this experience is helping students grow in their own sense of baptismal call,” noted Gloria Urrabazo, vice president of Mission and Ministry.”
Plucking students from his audience in the Sueltenfuss Library community room, Marcheschi assigned roles for the creation story – Adam, Eve, a slinky serpent and “The Tree,” who acted out the well-known story as he narrated in modern language. A real apple was one of the very few props used that day. (A special prop seeing duty was a paper crown constructed on short notice by OLLU students when Marcheschi gave his presentation at the institute three years before and has carried back and forth ever since.)
“God’s plan was to share love with humanity,” he noted at the skit’s conclusion, and when that plan got derailed he tried again with Sarah and Abraham and their bouncing “bambino,” Isaac, all portrayed by more students from the audience. By the end of the three and a half-hour presentation (divided by a noon lunch break) everyone was given the opportunity to play a role in the various re-enactments of Bible stories.
Though the way the stories are presented may seem “silly,” Marcheschi noted, they make a short but important point. “God loves us,” he said, “God has a plan, and God’s plan is to call each of us to himself.” This is the first call. Later, we will be called to our vocation in life. God works in and through relationships, he added, and, in fact, is relationship, being three divine persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
He proceeded to lead the class through chants, prayers, dances, games and more stories, interspersed with laughter and moments of thoughtfulness. Modern day versions of the beatitudes were portrayed, with the “stranger” being a lonely new kid in school being shunned by the “in crowd” and finally welcomed by a caring student.
“What we’re doing here is telling stories,” he explained. “That’s what the Bible is – it’s a bunch of stories, darn good stories, important stories because they make a difference.” Story-teller is another word for disciple, he added, and story-tellers/disciples experience more of life than the average person, being willing to take risks and get more involved in life. This prefaced observations on Socrates’ quote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Thought-provoking passages from the Old and New Testaments (sometimes intermingled) were given choral readings from scripts handed the students, “sheep” and “goats” were sorted by their actions, and characters in skits were not always assigned by gender, which added a touch of humor to the parable of the wise and foolish maidens waiting with their torches for the groom.
Marcheschi’s descriptive re-telling of the adulterous woman being brought before Jesus by the Pharisees gave example of how words and delivery can make the story more memorable to those listening. He pointed out that St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, had taught a “technique of imagination” to his followers which emphasized imagining one’s self as the persons in the Scripture and trying to feel what they felt. Centuries later, the famous Russian actor/director Constantin Stanislavsky used this in his “method acting,” which encouraged actors to understand the feelings of the characters they played. “Nobody, however, knows that Stanislavsky learned “The Method” from St. Ignatius,” Marcheschi added.
A pantomimed dramatization of “the body is one and has many members” was enthusiastically acted out under Marcheschi’s directions. Scenes featuring the Pharisee and the Publican in the Temple and Jonah and the whale (who also had many members) were enacted with lines fed to the student actors.
“You guys have been an amazing group,” he told the students as the story-telling concluded. “Heavenly Father,” he prayed, “please bless these young people and reward them for their desire to come closer to you by studying your word.”
Photo by Carol Baass Sowa for Today’s Catholic Newspaper